|1700's French territories|
Americans of French descent make up a substantial percentage of the American population but are less visible than other ethnic groups. Past and present, they tend to align themselves with their new world regional identities such as Québécois, French Canadian, Acadian, Cajun, or Louisiana Creole. The US 2000 census noted that 450,000 residents in this country speak a French-based Creole language (including Missouri’s dialect, Paw-Paw). It’s the third most spoken language in America. French was once widely spoken in the Midwest, including in Missouri, which was considered part of Louisiana.
|Woodcut by Arthur Heming|
The French were intrepid explorers. They may have started on the east coast, as did many immigrants, but they quickly moved westward along the rivers and lakes and south during the 17th and 18th century and then south along the Mississippi. Fur trade was the biggest contributor to that expansion lead by the Coureur des bois. As the fur trade expanded, the coureur des bois were at the forefront as trappers, traders, and explorers in the American interior.
Coureur des bois, roughly translated as runner of the woods, were French-Canadian woodsmen who traveled in New France (of which Missouri was a part) and the interior of North America. They were adventurers and some were explorers. They had many skills to survive in the wilderness. They were businessmen, hunters, trappers, and expert canoeist—the main mode of transportation. They forged ties with many of the Native peoples to learn the land and needed skills to survive and, of course, everything about trapping and preparing animal skins for trade with Europe. The coureur des bois were ever questing for new territory this meant circumventing the normal channels, of getting licensing letters of permission, by going deeper into the wilderness to trade. So they were also, to some extent, considered outlaws operating in fur trade without that permission from France and French officials in the new world. It was a big money back then.
The first European settlers in Missouri were mostly ethnic French Canadians, who created their first settlement in Missouri; the present day site is about an hour south of St. Louis.
The original Ste. Genevieve was established around 1750 along the western banks of the Mississippi River. Residents were mostly farmers, miners, and merchants from the French Canadian settlements of Illinois Country on the east side of the Mississippi, or upper Louisiana. The city remained the original location for 35 years until the great flood of 1775 destroyed much of the property. It was decided to move the entire village to higher ground (two miles north) a half mile back from the river floodplain. Ste. Genevieve has the most buildings of the French Colonial architecture in the US.
What I find interesting in this history is the parallel of expansion and growth along the Mississippi River at same time as the colonies on the east-coast were developing. Granted the population on the east coast was larger, about 900,000, but the Midwest was well populated by largely French immigrants and Native Americans and later, Spanish, Portuguese, and Germans. As in the east, the population and development largely moved from north to south and was thriving.
St. Louis, Missouri was founded in 1764 by French fur traders, Pierre Laclede (we have a Laclede County named after him) and his stepson, Rene Auguste Chouteau (he got a pond in St Louis named after him). In 1765 was made the capital of French Upper Louisiana.
|Chouteau Pond, St Louis in 1800 by John Caspar|
Other cities in Missouri founded by the French (and there are others including mining towns):
- Fort Orleans, established in 1723 along the Missouri River was built by French Explorer, Etienne Véniard De Bourgmond. Fort Orleans was the first European post in the Missouri Valley.
- Saint Charles was founded by Louis Blanchette, a French Canadian explorer, in 1769.
- St. Joseph, Missouri was founded by Joseph Robidoux in 1826. His buildings known as Robidoux Row are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a center for his family enterprise of fur trading, which he operated with his five brothers along the Mississippi and especially the Missouri River systems. Roubidoux Creek is named after him. A 57 mile scenic tributary to the Gasconade River in south central Missouri. St. Joseph is also where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended.
Missouri has an interesting history. If you’re questing for a French connection in Missouri, you don’t have far to look to find one. Other than the Native-Americans, they were the first to settle in Missouri.
Photos wiki commons, Missouri Historical Archives, Missouri History Museum, Missouri Dept Conservation